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by Michael Portantiere

Berger Deluxe

  • Will Swenson and company in HAIR; photo by Joan Marcus


    To be approached in Central Park by someone begging for change isn't always a pleasant experience. But it was fun when it happened to me early last fall because it was during a Public Theater performance of the "American tribal love-rock musical" Hair at the Delacorte, and the guy who hit me up for a quarter or two was the mega-talented singing actor Will Swenson in the guise of proto-hippie George Berger. I had previously enjoyed Will in Adrift in Macao at Primary Stages; after Hair, he went on to The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island at the Vineyard. But it's fair to say that Berger is his best role to date, and he's thrilled that he'll be reprising it very soon, as the Public re-mounts Hair in the park. I spoke with him immediately following a recent rehearsal.


    BROADWAYSTARS.COM: Hair was a blast last year. How, if at all, is it going to be different now?

    WILL SWENSON: Well, we had a very limited amount of time to put it together last year. It was announced as a staged concert, but we wound up doing almost a full production. A few book scenes and a few musical snippets were cut that we were able to put back, but the main difference is that now we have the time to fine-tune the show. We haven't added a lot of scenery; we found last year that the lack of a set really worked to our advantage, because it's part of the free and open spirit of Hair.

    STARS: Have there been any changes in costuming?

    WS: I think about half the costumes are the same. We lost a couple of cast members and replaced them, so obviously those people will be costumed differently. But almost the entire cast came back.

    STARS: Hair is a show that often leads to vigorous debate over whether or not it's "dated." What's your perception?

    WS: The fact that it's '60s music and the show doesn't follow a conventional structure might cause some people to bad-mouth it as dated, but I disagree. I think the beauty of Hair is in its non-conventional quality. It's so non-specific in so many ways that you end up responding to the energy of the show and the underlying message of love, instead of getting a lot of preachy dialogue and songs. It's a real snapshot of what was going on in the late '60s. Now is obviously an appropriate time to bring it back, for a few reasons; there's a lot of political change in the wind, there's an unpopular war going on. In many ways, it's similar to what was happening 40 years ago.

    STARS: The film of Hair is very different from the stage show, especially in terms of the script. Do you prefer one version to the other?

    WS: I haven't thought to compare them in terms of better or worse, because they're different animals. I saw the film years ago, and I watched it again recently to see if there was anything it that would be helpful. When the show was originally written, I think it was mainly a cry of protest and a way for the people involved to express themselves, whereas the film was more structured.

    STARS: I imagine any actor would kill to play Berger, because he's completely uninhibited.

    WS: It's a great part. There's a danger of making him just a clown, but I think he's fascinating and there's a darker underside to him. Berger is sort of the leader of the tribe -- and he has great songs! I couldn't ask for a cooler role.

    STARS: When I saw the show last year, I thought the whole cast was excellent. And you had great chemistry with Jonathan Groff, who plays Claude.

    WS: He's the best. I constantly have people coming up to me and asking, "Is Jonathan really that nice?" The answer is yes. He's a very thoughtful actor with an amazing voice. If I could buy stock in Jonathan, I would.

    STARS: To perform Hair with the Public at the Delacorte must be an amazing experience.

    WS: Unbelievable. You can ask any actor in town who's ever worked at the Delacorte, and I think they'll tell you it's their favorite theater. Most of the audience has waited in line all day and they're ready to love the show, whether it's Hair or Hamlet. I had a tiny part in Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Delacorte a couple of summers ago, and when I got Hair, I did back-flips just to be able to perform there again. Plus Hair seems like it was written to be done in Central Park. Last year, when we started singing "Aquarius" on the first night, half of the audience stood up and sang along with us. I don't want to sound cheesy, but it was really spiritual.


    [For more information on Hair at the Delacorte, click here.]

    Published on Monday, July 7, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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